The Ayn Rand would would have no such thing as public land, except for courthouses, other government offices, police and military facilities, and the like. Gary Weiss, among others, laments this. But he does not tell you the dirty secret of public land. The Constitution never authorized it. Worse, Congress carved out the largest federal lands for unworthy and abusive motives.
Ayn Rand and followers on public lands
Ayn Rand herself said little about public parks and other public lands. She mainly said, on principle, that the government should own nothing except what it needs for its proper functions.
Recently her followers described an ugly real-life spectacle, and why that spectacle need not happen in an Ayn Rand world. The “Reverend” Fred Phelps (he may or may not be an ordained minister), “pastor” of the Westboro Baptist Church, organized a picket at the funeral of Matthew Snyder, USMC, who was KIA in Iraq. Albert Snyder, his father, sued him. A year later, the Supreme Court held (Snyder v. Phelps) that Phelps and company were within their rights under the First Amendment, so long as they stayed on the public streets and sidewalks and did not “trespass” on the cemetery.
Tom Bowden, at the Ayn Rand Center, commented last year, and more recently, on this case. He called this ugly affair a classic example of the Tragedy of the Commons:
We take it for granted that streets and sidewalks are, and must be, publicly owned. But look where that leads: Any taxpayer can claim a right to use them as an owner. So, the Westboro Church picketers can self-righteously proclaim to the Supreme Court that they were just exercising their First Amendment rights to speak on public property. If it happened to destroy the solemnity of a funeral, that’s the family’s tough luck.
But in the Ayn Rand world, that street and that sidewalk would have a private owner. That owner would be free to agree, for any price he cared to ask for, to bar anyone from picketing within sight of any funeral at that cemetery. The city couldn’t do that. That would break the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.
(Note that the Fourteenth Amendment says that no State may “abridge the freedom of speech” either. That is a “privilege and immunity” that all citizens of the United States have.)
But though no government can censor Fred Phelps, private owners can. The problem: no one can “trespass” on property that he owns, in whole or in part. Not on the streets and roads, he can’t.
What the Constitution says
The US Constitution. Photo: National Archives of the United States
The Constitution gives the Congress only this much power to buy or keep public lands. Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 reads:
The Congress shall have power…to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such district (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States, and to exercise like authority over all places purchased by the consent of the legislature of the State in which the same shall be, for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards, and other needful buildings.
So the Congress may carve out a federal city, which it did in 1800. We call it Washington, DC. And Congress may buy land to build far-flung federal offices, Army posts, Navy and Air Force bases, and everything that the government needs to support the specific forces that the Constitution authorizes.
What is a “needful building”? Is a public park a “needful building”? It is certainly not a “fort, magazine, arsenal, [or] dockyard.” (Nor an air base.) Nor does it help the Census Bureau, the Mint, the Postal Service, or the Patent Office do its job. And if a needful building is whatever Congress says it needs, then Congress can literally buy or build anything.
Furthermore, Congress has broken faith with the Constitution several times in this context. It has set up hundreds of “national monuments” without the consent of the legislatures in the States where they lie. Morris Udall and John Anderson famously locked up millions of acres of land under the Carter administration. The Clinton and Obama administrations have locked up millions more. Without the consent of the legislatures, none of those monuments could be valid in any case. Nor are any of them “necessary [or] proper to the execution” of any of the enumerated powers of Congress, or any of the powers that later Amendments granted to Congress.
Land management in an Ayn Rand world
Camping and other “recreation” is a good like any other. If it has value, let those who value it, pay for it. Some people automatically assume that the Ayn Rand world would have no camp grounds or other recreational spaces at all. They do not know this. No one has tried this, so no one can know how valuable “unworked” land might be to those willing to pay to visit it.
The value-for-value equation should be obvious to anyone. In fact, the Bureau of Land Management is a notoriously bad landlord. Nearly every cattle rancher agrees.
This is the worst abuse of federal power. Congress took those lands from the States. No State passed a law to let Congress do this. Congress simply said, “This land is federal land,” and that was that. Some of these lands have abundant mineral wealth. And that is why Congress seized them: to stop anyone from extracting the minerals. “Environmentalists” will tell you that Congress sought to stop mining companies from “spoiling” the land. The result is that the United States is poorer for not having those minerals available. That is the real reason for those “monuments.” And once again: without the consent of the State legislatures involved, those land lock-ups are not only unauthorized but are flatly illegal.
Sadly, since the Bush Senior administration, the United States has set up a pretext for yet more land seizures. UN Agenda 21 calls for returning vast tracts of land to the wild, and marking off wildlife “corridors” where no human being may enter except under very special conditions.
Thus the Ayn Rand world, in this context, is a Constitutional world. Any movement wanting to restore American liberty would do well to take Ayn Rand’s advice, and that of the Ayn Rand Center. The Constitution already makes most public lands illegal. Congress has no authorization to have them, and got them illegally and without the key protection that Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 gave the States.
This article is part of the Ayn Rand world series.